When I embarked in my recent series of mezzotints featuring plants, I didn’t know that I had some sort of precedent in my family.
Through a research recently published by a group of academics ( G. Moggi, B. Biagioli, G. Cellai, L. Fantoni, P. Luzzi, C. Nepi) I’ve learned about an ancient book that is in my family’s library in Florence.
The book dates from 1575 and is what’s known as Hortus Impressus, a text that presents a collection of plants
The book was commissioned and annotated by an ancestor of mine, Stefano Rosselli. He was a “speziale”, basically a pharmacist. He had a flourishing bottega in Florence and his ointments and remedies where so famous that he became the Grand Duke Ferdinand’s pharmacist from 1588 to 1595. There are records of him being paid “three scudi a month and a horse”, and preparing antidotes for venoms, but also lip balm, for Cosimo I de’ Medici ( Ferdinand’s father) too.
Stefano is also quoted as one of the pharmacists making the ultimate and true version of Theriaca: an ancient “omnimorbia poliremedy”, whose name derives from snake’s venom, that has been prescribed for over eighteen centuries as a potent medicine that could cure a number of diseases. The invention of Theriaca is credited to Mitridate, king of Ponto, and perfected by Andromaco the Elder, personal physician to the emperor Nero. Galeno cites 62 ingredients, that became 74 in Spanish pharmacology. In the 16th century the best Theriaca was made in Venice, where eastern ingredients could be added; these included opium, myrrh, cinnamon, gum Arabic, rhubarb, incense, turpentine and more. Stefano made his own version and was called as an expert consultant over the recipe in favour of the scientist and botanist Ulisse Aldrovandi in a famous dispute (they won) against the guild of physicians in Bologna.
Going back to Stefano, with the money he made from his business he acquired a villa and planted a garden with all the botanic specimens he both personally collected and obtained through his contacts with the main botanists of the time, including Aldrovandi who is one of the fathers of modern botany. Stefano’s interest was no longer only medical, he became a passionate collector.
In the Middle Ages botanical texts, compiled to document plants with medicinal properties( called Semplici), were illustrated with painted images (Horti Pincti). At the beginning of the XIV century botanists found a more reliable method by printing the specimens directly onto the pages (Horti Impressi). This practice lasted for almost two centuries before being substituted by collections of dried specimens ( Horti Sicci ).
The most well known example of direct impression of a botanical specimen is a sage leaf found in Leonardo’s Codice Atlantico. Of course Leonardo’s enquiring mind was interested in this practice and he describes how a leaf has to be coated with soot from a candle, laid on paper and rubbed so that it produces an accurate image.
Nerofumo ( lampblack) is the medium used for Stefano’s herbarium, while other books were made using inks or paints
Stefano’s book is printed on paper with a Fabriano watermark. The first pages are made of a long list of plants copied from the famous herbarium of Andrea Cesalpino. It’s as if the list served as guide to then put together his own collection. The list is annotated in Stefano’s handwriting ( “thorny, grows in edges, diverging leaf but succulent, women call it marmeruce”, “maple whose seeds look like holmoak”). The second part, 83 prints, is the actual collection of prints, made of plants that could be found in Tuscany, both on coastal and mountainous areas and others more exotic that most likely came from his garden.
Some are arranged on the page in a very matter of fact way, some others end up with an interesting composition, some were even overpainted in watercolour.
You can imagine my delight at finding out all these facts after having made plants prints, and I had unknowingly decided to use Fabriano paper for editioning them too !
The book doesn’t really have an artistic value, nor it’s a fundamental scientific text, however I find its amateur’s nature very endearing: it really feels like a personal project that was doggedly pursued despite being obsolete ( in 1575 the Horti Sicci were in use, and the codice Rosselli is the last known example of Hortus Impressus).
It speaks about Stefano and his passion, and his tiny handwriting ( way smaller than the main copist) in my eyes betrays the seriousness and thoroughness of his character.
Another element that filled me with joy is the amount of meaningful exchanges that Stefano has with his correspondents “abroad” (Italy was still divided in different states at the time). A case of an intellectual whose interests take him beyond national borders: he was eager to exchange and share knowledge with foreigners, and although his main interest lies in autochthonous species he wasn’t afraid of “contaminating” his own garden with alien plants that could increase the diversity and potency of his pharmaceutical concoctions.
I've never been a political artist, however since my works are very personal it was inescapable that some current affairs were going to seep in.
Here's a bit about me: I moved to London from Italy twenty years ago when my husband was relocated here - it wasn't a choice and honestly with three kids under five and having already moved three times in the previous five years I would have happily stayed where I was, but my reluctance was soon forgotten and my London life started.
I definetely belong to the Easyjet generation, we live in a different nation from our family and old friends but then they are just a short flight away, we keep in touch easily, we can chat about the same TV shows, keep track of our holidays on Instagram. The word emigrant somehow sounds too extreme for me, it reminds me of people who settle far away from home and start a new life. My life is not too different from that one of my friends in Italy and I plan to go back at some point, I am probably more of a "semigrant", one foot here and one there, like many EU citizens I felt that the concept of home can be stretched by a couple of thousands kilometers.
And then, here comes Brexit.
During the campaign immigration was a big issue: EU citizens are evaluated for their contribution. Leave politicians paint us as a burden to UK society, Remainers advocate for us because we are workers, tax payers, consumers. All of a sudden I need a valid reason to live in Britain. I never thought of myself like that, reduced to productivity terms, I find it very sad. I believe that the benefits of freedom of movement in Europe go beyond the
- well proven - economic advantages; they enrich our knowledge and further social progress, make us more rounded and empathic human beings without losing an ounce from our respective national identity.
Through the past three years in my studio I tried to shut out this noise, but I wonder if my paintings have become darker, murky, and more doubtful. This past year my still life have included more plants, such as this painting of oleander leaves that I cut from a shrub I planted years ago at my front door.
I had an idea for a mezzotint, using the same leaves for a simple composition in a square. It was during the long hours spent on that copper plate that I asked myself about the oleander. I planted it, it's personal. But why did I plant an oleander ? I remember just picking what I was familiar with. Oleanders are everywhere in Italy, and Italian kids are always warned not to touch them because they are poisonous.
I also remember that I doubted it would survive English climate but surprisingly those few twigs grew to a very large shrub, they thrived here. Like myself, I thought.
I immediately decided to start a series that I have titled Immigrant Plants, featuring mediterranean plants that I watched growing in u neighbourhood.
I stole some olive branches from a tree that was inexplicably planted round the corner about fifteen years ago, an extravagant choice for urban decoration. The spindly sapling now has a magnificent twisted trunk.
The rosemary is from my front garden again, where it bravely resists my carelessness. Some Bay leaves are in the works.
I miss the time when news weren't monopolised by the fruitless discussions about trade and rules. I hope to hear more voices that advocate for freedom of movement and for the merits of a diverse and multinational society and for the principles of cooperation and solidarity.
Ilaria Rosselli Del Turco is an Italian painter living in London.